L’Odore della Notte (the smell of the night)

Rotting seaweed with or without a blend of sewage can be malodorous, especially at this time of year, more so if its disturbed. And because coastal strandlines extend right into our coastal towns, some people don’t like it.

But is it right to sanitise the shore completely and muck up a habitat?
Strandlines are found pretty much on any beach that allows tidal debris to build up. Sandy beaches, intertidal rocky shores, shingle beaches and saltmarshes are all important habitats and here in East Lothian a fantastic ready made biological laboratory right under our noses. Tidal ranges dictate how far they’ll extend above high water, but one thing is for sure, they are ever changing and fascinating.

Seaweed typically forms the bulk of your strandline material, but you’ll find all sorts, with driftwood ever present, man made materials and plastics and other organic and inorganic debris, more or less degradable. They’ll have been a time when these deposits were harvested for allotments, fields and gardens. Today its more likely to end up in the dump, though this is a wasteful and expensive option.

In the summer ON MANY POPULAR BEACHES, they regularly remove strandlines using mechanical methods, despite other places – albeit none locally I think – having Habitat Action Plans to protect them (Biodiversity Action Plans for habitats and species are developed in partnership with Government and voluntary bodies). So it is perhaps strange that we should try and manicure the beach, an important biological repository and feeding ground. The county of East Lothian is one of the least natural in Scotland, and the least wild (weekends in the towns can get a bit rowdy) being so heavily farmed and modified. Maybe its the unsightly litter being washed up that offends, or the omnipresent flies, or the rank smells that fill the night air, but often it is a lack of understanding of the ecological and environmental importance of natural the strandline material and uniform regime that can do more harm that good. 90% of the biological diversity can be removed by the manicuring measures. Often the accumulated material is pretty inoffensive and sparse, but the contractor is paid to homogenise and sanitise your beach. Such mechanical beach cleaning isn’t always necessary or appropriate and has a big downside, that of removing all the fun of beach combing on your doorstep, burying all those tiny cowrie shells and the like.

Not just small crabs live there, but tons of invertebrates can be found in strandlines: spiders; ground beetles; several species of rove beetle and kelp fly. No doubt you’ll be familiar with the ubiquitous sandhoppers. Birds naturally love feeding on strandlines. But did you know that richest communities of bugs occur in that thick, wet and smelly rotting seaweed rather than amongst crispy dry stuff?

The fermenting seaweed doesn’t compare with the evening smell of jasmine, but I’d suggest those wafts of sulphur and ozone are powerfully evocative of the sea, and a great deal more pleasant than some malodours I can think of. Take the sickly sweet scent of ripe silage effluent or the lingering foetor of pig manure that can hang in the air for weeks. My pet hates are the acrid smell of burning tyres/waste and I am grateful that I don’t have to ingest the rancid smell of frying chips.

But we should be wary of bad smells, as the current diesel story reminds us. In the old days it smelt bad (sulphur) and it looked bad (soot). Today you wouldn’t know as it has graduated to the status of silent killer, and with over 50% of vehicles running on it perhaps you should be worried – especially if you are old or young, foolish enough to shop or live on a High Street, have to get a bus.

Published by


passionate about the new and the old, but only if it is any good